alexandraerin: (Default)
I went back and forth on this many times during the design process. The appeal of the idea is pretty strong for me, and the advantages in regard to my general design goals (deep character customization both during character creation and advancement) are pretty clear, but I also worried about adding another layer of complexity to the game with even the simplest characters having too many special abilities from the get-go and giving players analysis paralysis by giving them too many options, and I was also concerned that I was simply recreating A Wilder World in a different format.

However, in the end, I decided the pros outweighed the cons. Adventure Song uses a dual or hybrid class system.

By this I mean that you select two character classes at level one. Unlike 3E/5E, where your character's overall level is the same as the sum of all your individual class levels, in Adventure Song, you'll have twice as many class levels as character levels.

The logic behind this comes from the idea of having each character class being a fairly pure core idea or high concept behind it. Fighters fight well, archers are the masters of ranged combat, rangers have the most acute senses. To make a classic D&D ranger, you'd combine ranger with archer and/or fighter.

I've gone back and forth on this, as I said. The thing that convinced me to go with it was the realization that the game was actually more complicated without it. Without it, the ranger would either be incomplete as a class, or would have to imperfectly duplicate some of what the archer or fighter did. In order to make the ranger's combat abilities not redundant with the archer or fighter, I'd have to leave holes in what should be some of the broadest, most generalized character concepts. And it would be impossible to make a character with the ranger's sensory and survival abilities without also having the tacked-on fighting abilities.

I also found myself creating three to five branching sub-classes for each character class, so you could tailor your ranger more towards ranged or melee combat, or tailor your cleric more towards being a holy warrior or a healer or a divine spellcaster, and so on. This coupled with a series of "meta class" choices (special abilities you gain based on your overall level, rather than your level in a particular class) was making the game rather crowded with moving pieces.

On the other hand, building the game around the assumption that even "single class" characters will actually choose and advance in two classes side-by-side lets me simplify, lets me strip out all extraneous abilities and skills from each class to focus more on the core concept. I don't need to build branching sub-classes in. I don't need to define the equivalent of feats that let you dip into classes without losing ground with your core class.

The difference between this and AWW's hybrid mash-up system is that Adventure Song is built around the idea that characters can fairly fluidly train into other classes. The ability to dip into other classes, even on a limited basis, simply eliminates a lot of the need for other character options that would occupy entirely new design spaces. If you can just take a level of wizard to get a useful beginner's level of magic, that's all it takes. If you can just take a level of fighter to give your character some credibility as a fighter, that's all it takes. There doesn't need to be a special build of cleric or ranger to add melee fighting to them. There doesn't need to be a special build of ranger to add druid magic.

There are some brakes on acquiring new classes, compared to 3E's almost totally at will multiclassing.

First, since each character level is equal to a new level in two different classes, you can't change both classes at once. That is, if you're a level 1 character who is dragonblood 1/sorcerer 1, you can't become dragonblood 1/sorcerer 1/ranger 1/rogue 1 at level 2. You'd have to advance either dragonblood or sorcerer.

Second, there's a limit to how often and how many times you can take a new class. Currently, I have a "first one is free" approach, but each subsequent new class takes the place of a later character advancement option, essentially being the equivalent of a 5E feat. This is to add an opportunity cost to balance out the static upfront benefits of being a member of a new class, because otherwise if your main class is wizard the dual track means that you could literally take a level of everything else without impeding your development as an arcane spellcaster.

There's also some resource-splitting. The number of limited use powers you gain is pegged to your character level, for instance. Each time you're slated to get one, you can pick one from any character class you belong to with the limit that you can't have more of them than you have levels in that class. So a character who jumps between classes often won't pick up any more turn undead/sneak attack/mighty blow type abilities than a character who doesn't.

And then there's the concept of edges. Edges represent the advantage that high experience characters have over low experience ones. Each time you reach a level where a new edge is gained, you have to make a choice between warrior, mystic, or expert edge. A warrior edge gives your skilled weapon attacks another die of damage. A mystic edge increases your magical power capacity. An expert edge increases your skill checks. Some class features also improve based on the number of edges you have of the right type. Because you have to choose which area to advance in, a character who is split among different character concepts will either lag behind a more dedicated one or can choose their character's focus.

For instance, a character who stays Archer/Ranger throughout their career will be more archer if they pick warrior edge every time and more ranger if they pick expert edge every time.

I've currently got six of D&D's recent core classes drafted as character class pairs:

Fighter: Fighter (frontline combat) and Veteran (survivability and generic adventuring skills)
Rogue: Rogue (sly combat trickster) and Thief (infiltration and criminal skills)
Ranger: Archer (ranged combat) and Ranger (superior senses and survival/exploration skills)
Cleric: Cleric (celestial channeling spells/servant of the gods) and Healer (supernatural healing powers)
Wizard: Wizard (arcane channeling spells) and Mystic Scholar (spell repertoire tied to a book)
Sorcerer: Sorcerer (innate arcane spells) and Dragonblood (physical and mystical power born of draconic heritage or empowerment)

Note that some of the character classes have either a more specific schtick or a dual-headed one. Expert classes (veteran, thief, ranger) are particularly likely to have a dual focus, because they tend to have an "adventure-portable specialty" and a "professional" one. The fact that a ranger can find their way across a trackless wilderness while feeding their allies and hiding all signs of their passage is an important part of what a ranger is, but it's not something that helps in the dismal dungeons of dank despair the way that spotting traps and noticing ambushes does.

While the classes above are designed to be paired together to replicate D&D classes, they can be used together in any combination. You can make a cleric/fighter to make more of the classic warrior priest. You can combine fighter and rogue to make more of a brute force rogue. You can make a fighter/thief to make a criminal who dispenses with subtlety in combat. You can combine mystic scholar and cleric (the mystic scholar's abilities aren't defined around one type of magic) to be a cleric with a wider repertoire of spells). You can combine ranger with rogue or fighter to make a ranger with a different fighting style than long-ranged combat. You can combine dragonblood and fighter to make a character who channels their draconic potential towards more physical ends. You can combine mystic scholar and ranger to make a cerebral character who operates on intellect and observation, or thief and ranger to make a detective.

The manual also explicitly points out that you can combine "veteran" with anything if you don't want to add a second set of complicated abilities or dilute your character concept beyond "adventuring ____________".

These twelve classes are meant to stand as a proof of concept and baseline testing version, but think about the combinations possible when the other recent and traditional D&D core classes are added in with their own combos. And then other specialties and sub-classes represented as a character class (Alchemist, Necromancer, et cetera), and more "generics" like veteran.

While it came at it from a different direction, the final result is looking to be something very much like a hybrid between A Wilder World and Dungeons & Dragons.
alexandraerin: (Default)
(Note: As in earlier projects, I'm still using "folk" rather than the not-quite-accurate "race" or "species" to describe "different varieties of sapient peoples inhabiting a world who have diverse and fantastic origins but are capable of interbreeding")

One of the main sticking points I run into in my fantasy game design projects is how to reconcile my belief that the game should feel fundamentally different if you're playing an elf or dwarf versus a human with my belief that characters should have some essential balance rather than having some be god mode and others hard mode.

One of the things 4E did in later books when peoples who were less obviously just differently shaped humans showed up was giving them powers they could take in place of a class power at the "utility" levels... so if you were a fey being or a shadow creature or a living vampire, you could develop further along those lines at the expense of developing your chosen class's usual repertoire. The core races also had feats that would develop their baseline abilities further, sometimes shading their character class... like divine-classed dragonborn getting breath that does radiant damage or heals allies, or extraplanar-heritaged rangers having their animal companions have plane-appropriate side abilities.

Both of these things use the same general idea: developing your people's talents takes the same space as developing other talents. I like this, because it allows fantastical folk to have fantastical abilities, but it keeps the entry level stuff less cluttered and it makes the game balance better.

So here's my simpler, more systematic take on it, taking advantage of a more 3E/5E multiclassing system than 4E had: folk classes.

I.e., there is an elf class, a dwarf class, et cetera.

Now, don't misunderstand. Unlike the flavors of Basic D&D where elf was a character class, there is still a separate character creation step where you choose to be human, elf, dwarf, et cetera. But having chosen a folk type (or at least, certain folk types... I'm not committing 100% to the idea that every folk will have a full level progression worth of distinguishing superpowers) allows you to take levels in a matching class.

Your basic choice of elf as a folk type gives you the baseline features of being an elf, the kinds of stuff you'd expect to get in non-4E versions of D&D. Taking the first level of the elf class gets you more like the baseline 4E version plus essentially a slight variation on the ranger/archer as your character class. Continuing to level up in that class is akin to focusing on elf-specific feats, powers, and paragon paths in favor of generic ones.

Now, here's a key thing: you're not locked in to taking your folk class at level 1. I'm strongly considering having a requirement that you have at least one level of it by some point before you're out of the single digit levels, so while it doesn't hamper your creativity in building a character of any folk out of the gate, you will eventually develop your folk abilities a little further if you grow in power and experience. This would also continue the "humans are more flexible/adaptable" theme, insofar as a level 10 elf would be 1 level behind a level 10 human in either soloclass specialization (unless the elf is specializing as an elf) or multiclass customization.

This requirement would not be quite as onerous as it sounds, even if I made it at least one level in every ten, which is what I'm actually thinking of doing, because the character progression includes the ability to "side class" at a few points, in place of taking another form of advancement. Side classing is like multiclassing except you take two class levels in different classes while your character level goes up 1. So the elf would be giving up some choice where a human could choose freely, either one class level choice or an equivalent opportunity.

The idea of leveled classes to represent more advanced special abilities for different folk also works well with my approach to blended folk characters. It's always been weird to me that D&D presents us with half-elves and in more recent editions half-orcs as core characters, but not other similar heritages. It's also weird the extent to which half-elves and half-orcs end up being mechanically treated as being completely different than either humans or elves/orcs.

So rather than having separate entries for "half-________" and the unspoken assumption that the other unspoken half is always human, I'm just conceiving the features of each folk as things that can be divided neatly in 2. You get a blend of both feature sets, and can choose the extra skills of either side, or half of each.
alexandraerin: (Default)
So, I went through a phase in Adventure Song after I pulled back from the idea of 4E-style-powers-but-more-modular where I really took to heart the part of 4E's design process where they decided to reduce each class to a core concept and build up from it. In this phase, I thought of the game's chargen/advancement system as "Take A Level In Anything". I was basically envisioning each character class as being either a skill, or another spell level, or something like that.

Want to fight better? Take a level in fighter. Want to be sneakier? Take a level in rogue. Want magic? Take a level in wizard. D&D classes like ranger and druid would ultimately be represented by multiple classes. E.g., you'd take a level in druid to get druid magic, and then a level in wild shaper to get animal shapeshifting.

I ultimately backed off from that idea because it required either that every level of a class was More of the Same, or else a character who solo-classed would be markedly more powerful than one who took a dual track.

Which is really the central design problem of free-form multiclassing. If the tier rewards for sticking with one class for x levels are too good, people who multiclass early on will fall farther and farther behind. If each has too many front-loaded goodies, then characters who don't multiclass will fall behind. If classes vary between being more of the same each level, devastating at high levels, and having loads of goodies up front, then the whole thing is a mess. Making every level of every class More Of The Same is a solution, but it's not an interesting solution.

My interesting solution, for what it's worth, is having a character progression chart that's mostly independent of your character class and individaul levels. To use an analogy as an example, imagine 4E with 3E style multiclassing, but at level 11 and 21, you still pick a paragon path and epic destiny irrespective of whether you're level 11 or 21 in a single class. You still pick your feats at the same level, and you still get access to the new tiers of feats and new levels of powers.

But that's a sidenote. The point is: I took the idea of drilling the classes back to their core concepts to an extreme for a while, and this posed an interesting question about the ranger. I know what the core concept of ranger isn't: using two sword or a bow. I've written many rants about how silly that is as a unified character concept, because it isn't one.

But what is? The ranger almost seems like a built in multiclass. Richard Garriott in Ultima III put the ranger at the center of a Venn diagram of the classic four classes: as an agile warrior with druid magic, it was a fighter/thief/wizard/cleric. The idea of the ranger as a conceptual mash-up was a big part of the genesis of A Wilder World's character creation system.

If I had to reduce the ranger to a single concept -- and my design experiment demanded that I did -- it would be tempting to say "ranged combat", but I didn't want to do that. I'm okay with a definition of ranger that says they're archers, but I'm not okay with a definition of archers that says they're rangers. If there's a "take a level in archer" class, it should just be archers, divorced from the ranger's baggage. Because the ranger class has a lot of baggage, and it needs that baggage. It is its baggage.

So if you take a level in fighter to fight more and you take a level in wizard to magic more, what do you ____ more when you take a level in ranger?

Again, I'm not actually following such a narrow scope in my class design, but it's a useful first step. And one that I really wrestled with when it came to the ranger, and I never answered the question before I moved away from the Take A Level In Anything approach.

But tonight, after I finished writing for the night, it hit me, while I was specifically thinking about how the ranger is not the dedicated two-weapon fighter. Because a fighter who has two weapons is just a fighter with two weapons. And I thought, "The thing that separates a ranger from a fighter isn't that the ranger stabs the guy twice in the time the fighter stabs him once... it's that the ranger notices him before the fighter does."

So that's my high concept for ranger: you take a level in ranger to take a level in noticing.

The rogue might be more skilled with traps. The rogue will be better at disarming traps. As part of this skill, the rogue will likely be better at noticing traps than other characters, all other things being equal.

But the ranger notices the trap. The ranger notices the secret door. The ranger notices the ambush. The ranger finds the water, finds the tracks, finds the hidden goat trail over the mountain. Rangers hear, see, feel, smell, notice, sense.

This is the ranger's "adventure portable" skill set. That is, it's what they bring to the table, whether the table's in the deep forest or the crowded market or the underground lair or the eldritch other dimension. The ranger's background skills have to do with moving around and surviving in the wilderness. They're part of the class because when a character should be good at stuff, it's good to have it mechanically represented when it comes up, but you don't bring the person whose skills are "really good at surviving in a forest" to the Murder Mines of Murder Mountain.

In keeping with both the foreground abilities of keen ears/eagle eyes/sharp senses and the background abilities of being a hunter and scout, the ranger's dedicated combat-fu revolves around bows, with a more intuitive and careful style to stand out from the generic archer. That is, you take the archer class to be really good at archery generally, but the ranger's superior at locating and bringing down hidden and elusive foes.

Dual weapons? Druidic magic? Animal companion? The latter two things are present as options, what I call branches in Adventure Song (cf. sub-classes, but you have the option of going back and branching again rather than continuing to advance down the one... so you're not choosing between magic and a companion, you're choosing how much of each you want). If you want more of those things, you can explicitly multiclass to the classes that have them, just as you could take a few levels of archer to shore up your ranged combat.

Dual weapons is presented as an option external to any class, available to all... listed among the recommended starting options for rangers because I know people will look for it, but not restricted to or mechanically tied to rangers.

And this in a nutshell is the core of what I'm doing with Adventure Song. For every class, I start with the question "What does this class do that no one else does, or no one else does as well? If you're multiclassing and you take a level of this class, what are you taking a level in?" Some classes are simple, like the vanilla warriors (fighter and archer) and the core spellcasters. Taking a level in wizard is taking a level in wizard magic. Other classes essentially introduce their own subsystem that you're taking a level in, like the monk.

And then when I have that core, around that I build a foundation that will be recognizable to fantasy gamers -- players of D&D in particular -- as being ~*that class*~.

And then on that foundation, I build something that tries to encompass the kind of madcap motley that 4E allowed/encouraged/accidentally unleashed, but in a way that's more freeform and less paint by numbers.
alexandraerin: (Default)
...and I kept starting it and then realizing I'm not sure what to say about it. Especially since I haven't been really diligently liveblogging my progress on it, so I'm not sure what to say about it.

I started work on Adventure Song almost a year ago, shortly after I moved. I'd been really excited about my previous (and still kind of percolating) massive roleplaying game project, A Wilder World, in the months leading up to the move, but my early self playtests revealed that while the character creation system was exactly what I wanted it to be, the game system it was attached to really wasn't where it needed to be. And while I love, love, love a good character creation system... I wanted something more than a character trope mash-up minigame.

The point of Adventure Song was to be a smaller, more system-oriented (as opposed to character creation oriented) game I could use a learning project. To give myself more of a target, I decided that it would also be more like in D&D. Part of the point of AWW had been to avoid re-inventing the wheel by making a lemming-powered hovercart (metaphorically speaking). With Adventure Song, I wanted to try re-engineering the wheel. It was going to be my personal D&D Next.

Now, after a year of sporadic growth and those two weeks I spent in Florida and the days this week when I was on a semi-enforced internet sabbatical, I have something I'm excited about. I just don't know how to communicate what's exciting about it.

But I think I'll try making a post about my class design process, talking about rangers in particular, since the handling of rangers has always been kind of a... thing... for me.
alexandraerin: (Default)
There's a principle that says that if you can't explain something to a 5 year old, you don't really understand it yourself. I don't know if I think that's true or not, but it's certainly true that figuring out how to explain things to others can sharpen your understanding of them.

There's a useful corollary for people involved in tabletop game design: the harder it is to explain a rule, the more likely it is that you don't actually need it.

I have an attraction to rules that are neat in the sense of "what an interesting intellectual exercise in abstract simulation!" than neat in the sense of "what an orderly and tidy thing that fits together well!"

But when I decided to focus my resurged efforts on Adventure Song in the starter classes and the opening levels of gameplay, I made the decision to specifically focus on putting them together in a basic guide package aimed first at playtesting and then at standing as an entry level approach to the game, rather than having a plan to make such an entry level thing.

At first, when I came to things that were essential but too complex to fit the "entry level" theme, I tried to brainstorm simpler alternatives that could be put as a placeholder rule in the basic package and then used as an optional variant afterwards.

But as I did this, I often found that the "optional entry level" version of a rule was the better one. So then, whenever I found myself having a hard time explaining my ideas, I'd start changing the rule around until I came up with something that answered the need but could be explained more concisely, or was less cumbersome to the players.

In the process, my skill system went from one where players have 3-5 independent pools of points to spend and the points are all derived by dividing individual attributes by 5 into one where everyone has one pool of skill points that's created by adding two attributes together. The off-puttingness of arithmetic tends to be a blind spot for me, but I figure that adding two low two digit numbers is less cumbersome than dividing 3 to 5 of them.

The idea that I found so interesting that it necessitated having separate points for physical skills, mental skills, and social skills is still represented in the system. I just built it into the cost of individual skills rather than making each type of skill bought as its own separate (yet repetitive) step of character creation. Another way this improves upon the "separate pools" scheme is that characters can spend their points as they see fit instead of having their points divided between three categories.

The interesting idea is still represented, but players are less constricted and the game is lighter weight.

A similar simplification happened in the combat system. I'm using group initiative (as was once the standard in D&D), because I think individual initiative tends to undermine the importance of teamwork, but at one point I was envisioning each round of having two phases during which each side takes a turn, with some actions happening in the first phase, some being broken across the two, and some always happening during the second phase. Some actions it would depend on circumstances when they happened (like attacking after moving).

The basic idea was that wizard-type spells should be slower than regular attacks or sorcerer-type spells, but the execution was complicated and kept picking up new facets.

So now? No phases. Winners go, losers, go... and a rule that "slow actions" (like casting) don't happen until the end of the round, with initiative winners first and then losers. Something like that I can explain in one sentence, and if the speed of actions don't change by circumstances, the only people who need to pay attention to this rule are the people who are going to be casting every round.

Other things that have been trimmed include a proliferation of character pieces that stack together independently of character class, the number of spell channels casters are expected to juggle, and the types and number of character resources the game uses for special abilities.
alexandraerin: (Default)
...which is that as much as I loathe the "everything is optimal and nothing hurts" school of power game theory, I've spent enough time around those types of gamers that I've subconsciously internalized a lot of their thinking about things.

One of the things I have striven for in my game design for both AWW and Adventure Song is to present players with interesting choices about what to put where, and how specialized they want to be. But after calibrating so much of the game around the deep end of the stat pool, I always seem to end up overcompensating on the side of "make sure they have enough points".

For instance, after having almost reflexively calculated the sweet spot for the intersection of dexterity and strength given the armor system I'm using in Adventure Song, I ended up designing the attribute allocation system around making sure every character hits their class's sweet spot... perfect defense for everyone at level 1, with no room to grow outside of magic.

I've ended up scrapping that attribute allocation system in favor of one that is radical by my standards, though fairly conservative: distribute 60 points among the 6 attributes (using the old stand-bys), minimum 5 and maximum 14, then apply bonuses (with humans getting 5 points to spend anywhere, as long as nothing's above 18.) Yes, I'm starting with the idea that the human baseline should mean something. I still subscribe to the idea that a heroic adventurer should be larger than life from level 1, but that's what the 5 bonus points are for. My original scheme was 70 points and then +5, which is pretty firmly in Lake Wobegon territory (you know, where the halflings are strong, the dwarves are good-looking, and all the player characters are above average).

And as I write this, I realize that one of my qualms in nerfing the attributes to be based on the idea of average as... average... is that I've written into the game a very generous initial armor listing for each class that was also based around hitting that sweet spot. I did it because under the pricing scheme I'm using, metal armor is prohibitively expensive for starting characters. But as long as every character class either gets free armor or is optimized to have similar miss rates without it, those numbers are really just numbers. I honestly didn't intend for the best armor to be in player hands at level 1, but it fell into a blind spot.

So clearly I have some more adjustments to make here, in myself and the game.

After playing around with the 60+5 attribute system, I think I'm going to stick with it. I came up with a suggested quick matrix for humans that goes 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, and 7. It's the kind of numbers that look like something you might get from a random number generator, but you've got three attributes that are above average and two below, so things are stacked in your favor. Half your attributes are about average... everything but your freakish 15 clusters perfectly around average, in fact. There's going to be one area where your character is great but with room to grow, and one area where someone else should take point.

(I should also probably point out that my check system is 1d20 + attribute rather than 1d20 + a derived mod, so the difference between 15 and 10 isn't a 10 percentage point increase in success rate, it's a 25 percentage point increase in success rate.)
alexandraerin: (Default)
I'm pretty fond of character progression systems that are based on achieving goals rather than amassing points, especially when the most concrete and objective way the system presents to get those points is to defeat (which is inevitably read as "kill") opponents. This is not a new thing; I've long preferred it, and even in point-based systems, I'm more likely to fudge them to create a pleasing arc than anything else.

Increasingly, I've been fond of "at the GM's discretion, about every 2-5 adventures depending on magnitude" school of doing things, but one of the things that I've always wondered about is how to strike a balance between rapid enough advancement to satisfy those players who are eager to get into the deep end of the pool while not overwhelming players who are still learning how to play the game, never mind what all those fancy special abilities they got at level 1 mean.

But today it occurred to me that this is exactly what the GM's discretion should be used for. Advancement of the character's abilities should come when the players are ready. If you think about it, it makes sense, right? You have to master the abilities that you have before you're ready to improve them or take on new ones.

The very very very basic rule is this: at the end of an adventure--not just a session, but the completion of a quest or a goal--a player who is comfortable with what they're doing can request advancement, which the GM will in the usual course of things grant, given two fairly easy to satisfy conditions.

The first condition is that the player must actually understand the major parts of their character's abilities. If there's a class ability or side bonus they just plain don't use, that won't hold them back, but if a level 1 wizard still has to be reminded that they don't have enough spell channels every time they try to cast a new spell while sustaining another, they aren't ready for wizard level 2.

The second condition is that the player must be able to point to something that shows their mastery, which can be anything from "there was that cool thing I did with my wizard magic" to "hey, we just completed an important quest and I helped with my wizard magic". If nothing suitable has come up, the player can specify they are taking some down time to return to wizarding school, meet with their mentor, or just put in some serious practice, et cetera. The GM can turn this into a sort of "threshold test" by requiring them to duel a rival, solve some puzzle that taxes their class abilities, complete some task, etc., thereby satisfying the condition, but if that seems cumbersome, it can just be "A month passes. Welcome to level seven. What are your new spells?"

(A threshold quest would be the same basic idea, for the whole party.)

Advancement can be handled on a group or individual basis, with the caveat that no individual in the group should get more than 2 levels above the lowest level in the group. If someone is lagging behind, it then falls to the rest of the group to help that player to the point where they're ready to catch up.


And you know? If that's how a group wants to roll, that's how the group wants to roll. I know plenty of people who use 1 adventure = 1 experience level verbatim as a house rule for every edition of D&D, either because they want to get to the epic level stuff quickly or because when you meet less than once a week that's the only way to see the higher levels. And I don't see a problem with that, if that's how the group wants to do it.

On the other hand, if one player wants to race to the top and the others aren't into or up for that... there is going to be some tension, and having rules that force compromise and discussion about the rate of advancement are probably one of the better ways to handle that, other than saying "find another group, LOL".

I'll probably present a very bare bones experience point system as an alternative just because some people would rather defer to a numeric system than leave these things up to individual judgment on both sides, but I think this has a lot of probabilities.
alexandraerin: (Default)
As previously suggested, I'm down to using the standard six (strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma) attributes.

My current scheme is that adventurers of most folk have 70 points to distribute among them with a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 18, with one disfavored attribute that costs 2 points for each point above 10 and has a maximum of 14, and then add +2 bonuses to 2. Humans have 75 points to distribute with a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 18, no bonus and no disfavored attribute. As much as I dislike the trope of "humans are average in every way, but flexible", it really aids a game system for it to have a "starter type" that doesn't have a lot of moving parts.

The threshold, nature, and even existence of a disfavored attribute are still up in the air. I might switch it to an incentive situation (an extra +1 to one of the bonus'd attributes if the character has a disfavored attribute of 8 or less, or maybe the bonuses shrink and disappear as the disfavored attribute goes up), or I might throw it out and go with an official position of "most elves have low constitution, but adventurers are outliers adn should not have been counted".

But in the absence of an adversarial GM who makes you wring every last point of advantage out of the game to survive (which the guide will discourage, though rules cannot actually prevent), there's no reason a gnomish fighter with a strength of 14 couldn't stand alongside a human fighter with a strength of 18 and a dwarf fighter with a strength of 20. They would have noticeable differences in effectiveness, but such is life.

I'm working on the assumption that every attribute should be useful for every character, so that there are plenty of organic reasons not to take 18 in three stats and dump the rest.

For instance, as previously discussed, your constitution, intelligence, and charisma determine your starting skill selections in the categories of physical, mental, and social, while wisdom gives you bonus selections. Constitution affects not just your HP total but HP recovery. Wisdom determines the frequency with which you gain new skills as you level. Dexterity determines your combat move. The assumption is that while a character with dexterity of 18 isn't necessarily twice as fleet of foot as someone with dexterity 9, coordination becomes essential when moving under combat conditions (hustling from place to place while having to keep your eyes moving all around the field).

The basic idea is that while a character with a low attribute won't be unplayable, there should be noticeable consequences... never a "well, I don't use that, so it doesn't matter if it's 5 or 8 or 10" situation. Even if you never make an active check using an attribute in your entire adventuring career, it will still have some impact on your character.
alexandraerin: (Default)
So, I've been making these game design posts for the past couple weeks, mostly ruminating on how things might work in a game system very similar to D&D but not quite. It started as really truly random musings, but then I spent a day traveling to an airport, waiting around at an airport, and then flying on a plane between airports with very little to do and my brain kept turning things around and I realized how to relate my original post about an alternate spell system to Adventure Song, my D&D-successor game that I'd kind of stopped working on because it was getting too kludgy and much more mechanically complex than I'd wanted.

Fitting the two together kind of required taking a more traditional D&D approach to spells in place of the 4E-style "spells as just one example of a thing that can fill a slot all characters have for powers" model, but once I did that... a lot of the kludge fell away.

Embracing the simplicity of the traditional six attribute system over one that generalizes thematically linked things the way D&D's does also helped.

And of course, since my goal with Adventure Song is to make a game that is recognizably descended from D&D in a way that appeals to gamers who like or wanted to like or used to like D&D, using the same six attributes on more or less the same scale is probably a good idea.

During my spare downtime on this trip, I've been putting together a playtest version of the revised and simplified game. It only allows for human adventurers of the classic four core classes, though with some customization. And free multiclassing, but since there are only four classes to swap between and the alpha version is only going to go to level 4 initially, that's not much of a sell.

This is the proof-of-concept build, intended to make sure that the rules make sense and are playable. Usually when I work on something like this I get distracted by spinning out ideas that should come after that solid foundation has been laid and tested (other classes, higher level rules and content, et cetera), but I've been keeping a pretty strict focus on what you might call "the core and the floor".

Even though it won't be as strongly in focus for the initial test version, I'm excited by the multiclass scheme I've come up with, which is essentially the 3E "take a level in anything" approach but with an inherent layer of protection against combinations that will either break your character or break the game.
alexandraerin: (Default)
Okay, so I'm coming up with a unified planar cosmology for Adventure Song. I've talked about this in a previous post, but I now have it sketched out in more detail. I have the mortal world as the World of Balance, whose existence and properties is explained by being at the midway point between two pairs of opposing "Outer Planes" or "Greater Planes", which are the spiritual realms and the material realms.

The spiritual realms are the celestial realms, or the Heavens, and the infernal realms, or the Pit. Both appear to the eyes of mortal visitors to be endless expanses (a bright sky and an empty void) dotted with individual realms (heavens and hells) created and inhabited by beings of great power (gods and devils). These realms are tied to the cosmic concepts of life/creation and death/destruction. Without both in equal measure, mortal life would not be possible.

The material realms are the realm of order (Dominus) and chaos (Pandemonium), home of the archons (rulers/overseers) who wish to impose perfect order on reality and the demons who wish to return all existence to a state of constant flux. Material existence in the World of Balance exists because the opposing pulls of these realms allows the elements of earth, water, air, and fire to mix and flow smoothly together into stable yet changeable forms. The central hub of Dominus, on the other hand, is surrounded by four largely pure and perfect elemental domains of order, and Pandemonium is an ever-shifting plane where the elements interact in chaotic and paradoxical fashions, neither mixing fluidly nor separating cleanly.

As with so many other things in Adventure Song, my goal here is to meld the innovations brought to 4th Edition D&D with the familiar parts of pre-4E D&D. The things I'm rescuing from the rubbish bin here are the existence of order and chaos as cosmological constants (though unrelated to mortal "ethical alignments"), and the existence of four "pure elemental planes".

Wrapped around the World of Balance like shifting mantles are the lesser planes or inner planes. They are slightly skewed reflections of the influence of the outer planes. The lesser planes are the fey realms and the psychic realms.

The fey realms consist of the lively and intensely magical Summerlands and the harsh and entropic Winterlands. The Summerlands are the World of Balance, skewed slightly towards the chaos of Pandemonium and the eternal life of the Heavens. The Winterlands are the World of Balance, skewed slightly towards the order of Dominus and the endless death of the Pit. I say "slightly" not because the difference between the fey realms and the mortal realm are slight, but because only a slight change in the balance is necessary for drastic differences.

If you were to envision the planar topography in three dimensional terms, you would imagine the fey realms as being a doughnut-shaped ring around the World of Balance, with one half cloaked in winter and the other draped in summer. Because the imperfect blaance between them is not stable, the fey realms "rotate" slowly through the seasons, so the Summerlands and Winterlands are not in fact distinct lands but whatever portion of the fey realms falls under which part of the prism.

The psychic realms consist of the Astral Plane--a domain of life and order--and... the Other Realm.

The astral plane is sometimes called the plane of mind or the plane of pure reason. It is believed that the astral plane is responsible for and/or created by mortal thought, and that many dreams originate within it. Angels originate within the astral plane. Both gods and archons use them as intermediaries for dealing with mortals.

The other realm--it has many names, but none that anyone can agree on--is the domain of death and chaos. It is roughly analogous to the Far Realm in D&D 4E's cosmology, except for being a lot closer. It's the plane of nightmares, both in the sense of disturbing dreams and truly aberrant creatures that devils and demons alike send to the mortal world to act as agents.

People drawing two or three-dimensional representations of planar topography usually draw the psychic realms as a ring surrounding the world vertically, while the fey realms revolve around it horizontally. The Heavens appear above, the Pit below, and Dominus and Pandemonium sit to the right and left, respectively.

When the souls of dead mortals depart the world, they pass through one of the inner realms (with the Winterlands and the Other Realm leading to the Pit, and the Summerlands and the Astral Plane being antechambers to the Heavens... powerful magic-users are more likely to pass through the psychic planes) and remain there for a time on their way to way one of the spiritual realms.

Those who fear their ultimate destination have more reason to linger in the inner planes, even as the infernal-tainted inner realms are more hazardous places, even for the dead. The Winterlands and the Other Realm are home to many who could be literally described as desperate souls, while the Summerlands are a place that one may encounter fallen heroes and the Astral Plane the temporary abode of enlightened souls.

Incorporeal undead are spirits from the inner realm who--through desperation or with outside help--break through the barrier from the inner planes to the World of Balance. The unearthly chill that is said to accompany many specters and ghosts is in fact the cold of the Winterlands brought over with them.
alexandraerin: (Default)
Hands down, one of the best inventions connected to 4E was the elemental chaos.

The pre-4E idea that you have four mostly homogeneous "pure elemental planes" that instantly kill you unless you have the magic ring of plot contrivance (or its equivalent spell) has some appealing possibilities especially from the elemental rock-scissors-paper viewpoint (though it's also partly the trope codifier for that in fantasy gaming), but at the end of the day it's kind of... boring.

But the elemental chaos? A world made up of seething, churning raw elemental stuff of creation? An endless shifting landscape that's just stable enough that you can walk across it, just familiar enough that you can have enough of a frame of reference to explore it... but constantly changing and explosively weird? Rains of acid, forests of crystal, rivers of fire, geysers of sand... floating islands, sentient storms, lightning bridges...

Pockets of stability exist where someone of sufficient will and power desires them to, so you've got cities and fortresses and primordial domains, but outside of that? It's every alien world you could imagine, at once.

And the elemental creatures who live there, instead of being homogeneous monoliths (or monopyres, or monoliquids, or monoairs), they're often paradoxical elemental mash-ups. So much more interesting than "here's a dude who's basically a golem made out of water."

And then the decision to make the Abyss the corrupted heart of the elemental chaos and demons corrupted elementals... well, if you're not going to do something like that, there's really no point in making the devil/demon distinction that D&D has always done. When they're all just "fiends" and some are Chaotic Evil but others are Lawful Evil... well, there are people who are chaotic evil and there are people who are lawful evil, so this seems like another way of saying that fiends is fiends.

But when devils are corrupted angels and who want to rule creation and demons are corrupted elementals who want to tear it down... now we're talking fundamental differences.

Of course, there's the "baby and the bathwater" issue and the fact that people coming to a game called D&D expected to have their familiar elemental planes. Trying to fit the wheel of earth/fire/air/water into a world where elements are represented by the elemental chaos doesn't really work well, which it made it awkward when they tried to staple those correspondences back into the game later in the cycle.

So, here's my approach.

First, let me talk about cosmic order and cosmic chaos. I have more or less completely thrown out the lawful/chaotic divide in the philosophical alignment system as being meaningless and incoherent, but I'm still using the cosmological concepts of order and chaos. Like 4E, I envision a planar cosmology that has the natural world/material world/prime material plane at the center surrounded by sets of opposing planar axes.

My concept is that the natural world--the center world--is "the world of balance", or "the world in the balance", depending on your viewpoint. In terms of elements, the center world is the place where the elements flow into each other smoothly to produce all the natural phenomena that make mortal existence possible. You can't find "elemental earth", "elemental air", "elemental fire", or "elemental water" in the center world because it's all mixed up in different proportions.

"Above" the center world is Dominus, the World of Order, ruled by the archons. I know that 3E used this as a class of angels basically, and 4E made them into elemental foot soldiers, but in older versions of D&D, "archons" were beings of pure order based on some of the scarier descriptions of angels. I like the idea of them as representing pure order, because "archon" means "ruler". (Same root that gives us anything-archy).

The will of the archons or the nature of Dominus causes the elemental makeup to separate into discrete domains made up of the constituent elements. They would not suffer anything so messy as earth to mix with water. Magic that summons an "earth elemental" or "fire elemental"--beings of pure elemental essence--or that calls forth a massive volume of water or earth from an extradimensional reservoir--is tapping the elemental domains of order.

"Below" the center world is Pandemonium, a word that conveniently means "place of all demons" and "absolute chaos". Pandemonium is the World of Chaos, inhabited by demons. The nature of Pandemonium prevents the elements from mixing smoothly as they do in the World of Balance, but rather than separating neatly as they do in Dominus, they clash endlessly and cataclysmically with each other. Keeping the plane navigable to mortals is the fact that chaos includes the possibility of islands of apparent order, and that the more stable a temporary configuration is, the less temporary it will be.

Now, this is separate from the "above" and "below" that divides the celestial gods and the infernal devils, and while I like the idea of multiple ways of describing the cosmology in terms of up and down that don't interact with each other, for sake of clarity I might change order and chaos to "without" and "within", thus placing the chaos of Pandemonium "inside" the world and the order of Dominus "beyond" it.

And here's a key point to all of this: the demons and the archons are, collectively, the scariest big bads of the Adventure Song cosmology. The archons aren't the good guys. They're not someone you can appeal to for help... unless the problem is demons, in which case they might take an interest but you might not be happy that they did.

The presence of the archons and the existence of Dominus exerts a continuous pull on the World of Balance which is opposed in equal measure by the demons and Pandemonium; if either side were to cease their participation in the cosmic tug-of-war, there would be no World of Balance. Its contents would either be sorted into its constituent elements, or shredded into the swirling mix of Pandemonium. Mortal life has no place in either scheme. Life as we know it is too inherently disorderly for Dominus, and represents too much order for Pandemonium.

Because of the way the three elemental worlds (order, balance, and chaos) pull on each other, Dominus and Pandemonium can both be encountered in terms of "layers", with the layers "closest" to the World of Balance bearing the greatest resemblance. These "near" planes are ones that have air that mortals from the World of Balance can breathe, landscapes they can walk through, and sights they can comprehend. The further you move towards the perfect order at the core of Dominus or the perfect chaos at the heart of Pandemonium, the less these things are true and the less Roleplaying Game Monster-y and more Unknowable Cosmic Horror-y the inhabitants become.
alexandraerin: (Default)
So, I've written before about what I think the deficiencies of the traditional D&D alignment system and how I think 4E's pared down version is a tremendous improvement on it. If it has a downside, it's that in clinging to the labels of the system it's discarding (in particular, "Lawful Good" and "Chaotic Evil"), in paying lip service to the ideas that were thrown out, it seems to be defending the worth of those ideas.

For Adventure Song, I started with the standpoint that I'd probably just throw out alignment entirely... but as the project progresses, I'm starting to doubt that's the right move here. After all, this isn't AWW. It's very specifically my D&D-style game. While I'm pointedly throwing out some of the sacred cows, is this really one to do so with?

So here's what I'm thinking. I have a solid idea and a tentative idea. I like the tentative idea better than the solid idea, but the solid idea has the virtue of being simplicity.

The solid idea starts like this: take the alignments that 4E uses and throw out the "law"/"chaos" distinction. Then we have:

Extreme Good/Good That Restricts Itself
Just Plain Good
Unaligned (neutral/selfish/uncommitted/not particularly anything/mostpeople)
Just Plain Evil (unrestrained selfishness, conquest)
Destructively Violent/Cosmic Nihilist

Explicitly rearranging it into a continuum and splitting unaligned up a bit, we might get something like:


Virtuous, Good, and Decent are the good alignments. Most heroes fall into one of these categories.

Decent, Selfish, and Venal are the neutral alignments. Most people fall into one of these categories.

Venal, Evil, and Monstrous are the evil alignments. Most villains fall into one of these categories.

Yes, I know that Decent and Venal ended up in two categories.

Each alignment in the list is more restricted than all the alignments below them. They are most strongly defined by what they won't do (a list that gets smaller the farther down you go), and then by what they're likely to do.

A nutshell description of the distinctions among them, using the idea of "found money":

Virtuous is someone who, if they found money on the street, would turn it in to authorities (if this is an option), try to find the owner, and donate it to a worthy cause if all else fails. You could say that they believe good deeds are their own reward, but it would be more accurate to say that they believe good deeds.

Good is someone who, if they found money on the street, would make a good faith effort to find the owner and return it before keeping it.

Decent is someone who, if they saw someone dropping money, would call out and hurry to catch the person, because that's the right thing to do.

Selfish is someone who might consider keeping the money even if they knew who it belonged to, because money's money. Of course, they might call out, because they'd want someone to do the same thing, right?

Venal is someone who, if they saw someone leave some money unattended on a table or bartop and no one was looking, they might pocket it. Why not? People should be more careful. Anyway, it's not like anyone was hurt.

Evil is someone who would knife someone for money, or hold a knife to them to get money. This isn't to say that everyone who's evil uses this particular M.O. or has money as their motivation. Just that they wouldn't balk at it.

Monstrous is someone who would knife someone as a means of knifing someone, or hold a knife to them and force them to hand over their money because they enjoy having someone in their power. Which isn't to say that they wouldn't also take the money, assuming that money means anything to them.

That's my stronger idea. It keeps the idea of good and evil as moral alignments, something that's written down on a character sheet and could be detected supernaturally, with the added benefit of there being a magnitude.

The more tentative idea concerns ethos. D&D uses "morality" to refer to "good and evil" and "ethos" to refer to "law and chaos", with the considerable caveat that neither of these words means remotely the same thing for good characters as opposed to evil characters (making them, in essence, just flavors of good and evil).

What I'm considering instead is having a list of different ethoi like Order (valuing stability and continuity in society), Power (valuing the pursuit of power in its own right), Kindness (valuing treating people well and with charity of spirit), Survival (seeing one's survival as if not the highest good in life, then the one that must be attended to before any other good), Honor (valuing the keeping of one's word and fulfillment of obligations), and so on.

The idea would be you'd define your character's ethical philosophy by choosing a primary ethos and a secondary ethos. These would mostly be roleplaying guides, and something the GM could occasionally nudge you over, possibly a tool for assessing roleplaying XP.

One of the keys of this idea is that you could have any magnitude of any moral alignment and still have any combination of ethos. You could be a monstrous villain who believes in honor and kindness. You could be a virtuous hero who believes in power and survival. This is a bit of a simplification, but: your ethos defines your goals; your morality defines the limits of your means.
alexandraerin: (Default)
One other tweak I made at the same time that I refined the Fighter...

A basic combat power has multiple sets of abilities. There's the basic uses, the silver use, and the gold use. The higher sets cost tokens. Originally I'd intended that players would start out with one of each type of token, but as part of making a learning curve progression for the game I decided to hand out the first silver token at level 2 and the first gold token at level 3.

This means that when you pick your first combat power, you're going to be looking at some stuff that you can't use for another two levels. It also means that once you've reached level 3 and got your first gold token, getting any new combat power changes your character more drastically than it did at level 1.

As a solution to this... and to make the power write-ups less wall-of-texty... I've broken them up into levels. They're labeled "First Level", "Second Level", and "Third Level" rather than Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, because it's how many levels you've had the power for, not what level you are. The first level where you get the power, you get the basic use. The second level you have it, you get the silver use. The third level, you get the gold use.

This means every power you get at any level has the same kind of "growing into" experience as your first one did. It also helps balance the effect of actual higher level powers... when you get your first new power at a new tier of play, you're not suddenly trying to work its most powerful iteration into your routine.
alexandraerin: (Default)
I have some incredibly well-developed ideas and even rough drafts for other character classes, but right now I'm really focusing on getting the classic core four done, both because I think that's the bare minimum point at which it'll be worth playtesting and because I envision using them to help introduce the game to new players, using a sample Fighter character to explain the basics of combat, a Rogue to explain attribute rolls, stealth, and movement, a Wizard to explain power use in general, spell casting, and the advanced/explodier aspects of combat, and a Cleric to explain healing, recovery, death, etc.

The idea of starting by explaining how a Fighter fights (which is broadly the same as everyone else, though they use the most straightforward version most often) is a little weird and kind of counter to the way I conceive of roleplaying games, but I think it makes a lot of sense. The same d20 mechanic is used for everything else, and imaginary combat is like the iconic thing that roleplaying games are known for. They started with miniature warfare and sooner or later they usually come back to it. And compared to trying to explain rolls in general in terms of Charisma and Perception and Intelligence... well, "Do I hit this dude with my sword, or not?" is pretty easy to grasp.

And once it's been established how that works, we can talk about how other things come back to the same rules.

Anyway, that's in the future.

Of the core four, Rogues are the farthest from being complete. I'm making progress with them, and in fact I've got a rambly post in draft form about that progress, but this post is about Fighters.

See, I had a pretty major breakthrough with Fighters today. I realized that while I'd given up on making them a generic one-size fits all warrior class that could be customized into ranger, warlord, barbarian, and paladin, the collection of powers I'd come up with for them still reflected that kind of intricacy. And also that it severely undermined the benefit of having players "grow into" the game when the most basic fighting class at level one is presented with all these options that include forced movement, lingering conditions, et cetera.

So I made a decision to prune the branches and to simplify. The stuff that's being cut from the Fighter's power list isn't going to be gone, it'll just be reconfigured for its eventual home... with the Ranger and Warlord, mostly, though some of it might well be non-entry-level Fighter stuff. Because while the power structure is flatter than it is in 4E, it's not completely flat.

The stuff I kept as first level Fighter foo, I streamlined. Before, the Fighter's favored power type was "Fighting Techniques". Now it's "Strikes".

If I can't describe it as a Strike, it doesn't go under Fighters.

The starter set: Sure Strike, Powerful Strike, Quick Strike, Far Strike, Defensive Strike, Aggressive Strike. Six choices. They vary in complexity... Quick Strike essentially puts opportunity attacks back in the game, for someone who wants them, but Sure Strike and Powerful Strike are designed to be extremely newbie friendly, and you only need to pick one at level one.

No multiple target attacks, no battlefield control, no attack-and-move-and-attack-and-move combos, no multi-round combos. And just six choices. And at level 1, the one that you have is just a bonus and a Copper Token you can usually spend in response to a prompt written on the power ("When you make an attack roll and miss.", "When you make a damage roll and don't like the result.")

Does this make Fighters boring and pigeonholed like they were in OD&D? Well, not really, because as soon as you hit level 2 (or right away, if you're an experienced group and skipping the learning levels) you can pick your second combat power and it can be from any category. Any of those interesting powers that are going to end up under Warlord and Ranger are open to you, and most of them, the class-specific bonuses aren't actually class specific, they're tied to a feature that warrior classes share in common.

So you don't get penalized as a Fighter for taking "cross-class" abilities... but if you're a brand new player looking at what you've been told is the simplest class in the game, you're not presented with these wall-of-text abilities that make reference to rules that won't make sense until you've seen them in action. You've just got these six abilities with simple explanations: hit more often, hit harder, attack more, hit enemies farther away, better defense, better offense.

Also, because nothing about the Fighter's basic abilities actually depend on having a power that takes the Strike form, I'm thinking about loosening the requirement that they pick one at level one by adding a caveat "or one power that benefits from Warrior Training." New players reading through the chapter will be guided to these six really basic Strikes, power players can skip ahead and pick whatever, ah, strikes their fancy.

With this change, I think I can put a fork in the Fighter class and call it playtest ready.
alexandraerin: (Default)
...the more I think that major powers as I've drafted them are too major for level 1. They add too much complexity for newbies, or even for experienced players getting the hang of a new character. I like the idea of awesome up front. I really do. But it can get in the way of the game.

But the only reason I front-loaded them like that is because that's the way the game works... or the way it worked before I started revising the early progression. And pretty much every idea I've had can easily be rewritten as something simpler/weaker. Mighty Blows? Scale it down from x2 damage to a damage bonus. Dual Wielding? Take out the double attacks and punctuated flurries of blows and it's not big or complicated. You're just using two weapons. All the * companion ones can just be scaled down from having an autonomous fighting partner to, essentially, a pet.

So the idea is that the awesome is *represented* at level 1. Hinted at. It doesn't come out of nowhere, when the major power blooms.

Right now, you pick new powers at levels 2 and 4 (a utility power at one and a combat power at the other, but you can pick which), so I think it makes sense to have major powers go through their first "bloom" at level 3, and then since players attain expert state at level 5, they can have a second "bloom" at level 6. I'll have to think about how many steps the progression of a major power should have, but if they have another one, 9 would be the logical place.

Making major powers incremental instead of all-at-once also makes it easy to work in adding one in the higher tiers... especially if it takes 9 levels to mature.

And while breaking these things up into multiple levels might seem complicated... well, some of them are pretty wall-of-texty.

I think part of the problem is conceiving of them as "Major Powers". Making them a direct cognate to the combat and utility powers you gain as your character progresses made some sense conceptually, but doesn't make a lot of sense on a systemic level. They have more in common with character classes. They're like abbreviated pseudocharacter classes or overlays on a character class. If I stop calling them powers, I can break up the complicated ones into a set of two or three powers and have it be like Level 3: Gain this power. Level 6: Gain this power. Level 9: Gain this power, while the simple ones just have static bonuses there.

I originally called them "Gimmicks", and I might revive that. Or "Themes", to borrow and slightly repurpose a term from 4E. They really have a lot in common with 4E themes, except for being intended from the beginning of the system instead of being grafted on later.
alexandraerin: (Default)
Talking about the ranks and initiation of wizards in the last post got me thinking about learning curve.

4E aimed to make every class equally complicated in terms of resource use and round-by-round options, and in the process, they lost a lot of the gains they made in approachability/newbie-friendliness when they stripped the system down.

Adventure Song, as I've been conceiving it, may be even worse. From level one, you've got a similar complement of powers to a level 4E character, but you've also got all these resources to think about: three or four kinds of tokens plus vigor. You've got one of each token and the point of conceiving of them as tokens is to give you a tactile and visual reminder of what you've got to work with. But that's still a lot to jump in with.

The obvious answer would be to space things out over the course of a character's career, but I like 4E's "awesome from level 1" approach. I really do.

But thinking about the idea of a wizard starting out in the undyed white robes and waiting a couple of levels to pick a more specific specialty/bonus...

Well, there could be a model there.

First, the universal: characters begin at level 1 with one combat power (not two), one utility power (not two), and one copper token, not one of each metal. At level two, they gain one silver token and one additional combat or utility power. At level 3, they gain one gold token and one additional utility or combat power (whichever they didn't take at level 2).

Then, the specific: each class's features include a set of advantages you get at level 1, a set of advantages you get at level 2, and a set of advantages you get at level 3. For the simpler classes, "a set" might mean "one".

This also simplifies something else, which is the multiclass balance. I already planned that leveling into a new class would put you at a special level 0 which only gave the bare bones, and then level 1 would give you some of the advantages, and level 2 would give you the rest. Now I don't have to make special multiclass entries. Level 0 gives you the bare basic definition of the class, and each of the first three levels gives you the advantages they would normally bring.

So you make a wizard starting out at level 1. You've got one attack spell and a spellbook with two utility spells in it, because wizards get double utility spells, but can only have one in memory at a time... casting doesn't make them forget the spell, they just can't quickly access the ones they didn't study that day. You also choose an implement, and you're Trained (+3 to attack) in its use.

That's what you get as a newbie wizard. One attack spell, which can be augmented in a usually-not-extra-damage fashion with a Copper Token once per encounter, a wand or staff or similar implement that makes you more likely to hit with it, and two utility spells you can switch between. This is what makes you a wizard: a staff and a book. These are the resources you juggle while you're learning to play the game.

As you gain the second and third level of experience, you'd gain the other benefits that make a wizard different from any other character casting spells, including at level 3 picking your color/order.

Breaking class abilities up over levels isn't new or revolutionary, nor is it particularly "4E", which largely makes mid and high tier stuff come down to individual power choices (and the meta-power choices of Paragon Path and Epic Destiny). There's no set "At level 15, Clerics..." stuff because while Clerics are strictly defined, there's no strict definition of what a level 15 Cleric is. And I like that.

Which is why this class-based ability progression will end at level 3, or possibly have an added bump at level 5 to reward people who stick with a class as opposed to dilettantes who multiclass and train just long enough to get the front loaded benefits. 5 is halfway through the first experience tier. In keeping with the Big Darn Heroes model of gameplay, 5 could be understood to be the "expert level"... when you go looking for an expert duelist or thief or wizard in the early levels, you're likely to find someone around level 5 or so.

After that, your characters are the experts you're looking for. Level 5 is the turning point where other people start coming to you, looking for experts.

I think this makes for a nice middle road between the "everything frontloaded approach"--which I like because I hate games that make you grow into a character concept--and the "can't have everything" approach where characters grow into their powers.

I just did a test conversion of my Fighter class to this and I found that I liked it quite a bit. A previously confusing and unwieldy system whereby Fighters chose from a number of different weapon skill options at level 1 works so much better now as a set of guided choices over the course of 3 levels, and also has the advantage of not locking a character into the style of play they picked during character generation without having to have a "talk to your GM about changing if it doesn't work out for you" caveat.

The idea of having an expert level also kind of hearkens back to to earlier editions again, with "Name Level"... granted, I really hated the idea of Name Level. You had to get to survive eight or nine experience levels that would kill you before your Fighter was actually a Fighter? No. Very no.

There's a reason I'm locating my Expert level in the middle of the lowest tier of gameplay, and it's because a dedicated group should be able to reach it fairly quickly. In fact, the experience requirements for the early levels is going to be very pointedly low, with the idea that you're level 1 and 2 long enough to figure out how to play the game at its core, before you start accumulating abilities that go over the top of it. They're basically the "tutorial levels", largely intended for use with adventures that are designed to teach players the ropes.

The one thing I'm *not* sure about with this progression is where to fit major powers into it. Major powers are character defining gimmicks ranging from the very simple (hits twice as hard, has two weapons and can attack with both of them) to the middling complicated (has a trained attack bear, can repel/rebuke devils and undead) to the pretty complicated (can open wormholes, can bilocate).

By the same token that they're meant to be character defining and in some cases stand in for familiar/iconic class features, I feel strongly inclined to locate them at level 1. But even though you won't have the tokens to use all parts of them at level 1, I feel like their presence adds back in a lot of the complexity that this progression removes. You can take a simple major power (hits hard) to avoid that, but then you're locked in.

...though maybe that's the answer: don't lock it in for new players. At any point from character creation through level 5, you can pick a new major power at a level of experience. After level 5, your character has firmly established their fighting style/bond with their companion/contract with extradimensional entity/whatever. Maybe a caveat that if you pick a new major power at level 5, you can switch back to a previous one at level 6 if it doesn't work out.

Or maybe it never locks in, but from levels 1-5 the GM is formally encouraged to handwave away such changes, and after level 5 the recommendation becomes "make them justify/work for it).

Yeah, I like that better than an arbitrary fixed limit. If you start out with a trained fighting bear and the trained fighting bear dies, you can pick up a second sword and train yourself to fight ambidextrously to make up for the loss of your partner watching your back. If you manage to break the contract that gave you your imp familiar, you have more resources towards learning how to bilocate. Or the being you made the contract with decides you have passed an evaluation period and no longer sends a familiar to watch over you, rewarding you with the power to bilocate. The point of a flexible system is it's flexible.

And the system doesn't break if a character has no major power; they'll just be underpowered, and not even that by much before all the tokens are in play. So at levels 1 and 2, if someone playing for the first time just does not even want to mess around with an added layer of complexity? They can give it a pass. And then at level 3, they rescue a bear cub. Or sign a contract. Or have a vision from their god. Or whatever.
alexandraerin: (Default)
So, the 4E player's handbook starts a trend where it presents two builds for each class, usually tied to the selection of a key class feature. Oddly, some classes have three choices for the feature.

For the PHB wizard, the builds are war wizard--focused on damage--and control wizard, focused on conditions/effects. I could go into how the two builds and the powers aimed at them reflect the fractured identity of the "controller role" at the start of the game's life cycle, but this isn't actually a post about 4E and as starting points, "Blasty Wizard" and "Controlly Wizard" aren't bad at all.

Almost right away, I started thinking of the Blasty Wizards as the "Red Mage" and Controlly Wizard as the "Gray Mage", which reflects the way that Adventure Song keeps harkening back to even older versions of D&D and its campaign settings. Storywise, Red Mages view passionate emotion as the key to effective magic use and Gray Mages view cold reason as the pinnacle.

With an emphasis on blastiness in particular, I refined the Red from just being "damage" to specifically specializing in area effect and explosive damage spells, which led me to add a third specialty, which is focused on accuracy in single-target spells. I called this Black Mage, with a guiding virtue of willpower.

Black, in Cadrian wizarding circles, is the color of self-control. The tradition is that when an apprentice believes they're ready for the black robes, they stand in front of their teacher, both holding unlit candles. The test is that they both light each other's candles with a ranged attack spell at the same time. If the student flinches and drops their candle, fails to light the teacher's candle, or damages anything other than the wick of the candle, they fail the test and remain an apprentice for at least one more season.

The test is safe, of course. There's no danger that their instructor will harm them, and no chance an apprentice's spell could harm a prepared mage. It's a measure of self-control and precision under pressure.

Now, I'm obviously avoiding the BLACK BAD WHITE GOOD trope here, but having all these colors of magic it would seem kind of arbitrary to avoid white completely. But there aren't really other generic-izable attack styles beyond single target, multi target, and control. I could break up control to be area effect and individual ensorcellment, but I don't really want that many different control spells. Giving white a non-combat specialty plays into the above trope, even though the game clearly assumes that fighting is not morally evil.

So what I came up with is this: all apprentices who would become mages are given robes of undyed cotton when they prove their willingness to do the work of learning magic. To begin with, they have teachers of every order of magic, or their lone teacher tries to represent the viewpoints of the other schools. In time, most apprentice mages feel called to one color or another. Some remain in the white even as they become full wizards. The "Undying Ones", as other Wizards sometimes chidingly refer to them, never make a choice of specialties... they choose all and none. White Mages just get a generic attack bonus with spells. Not as impressive or interesting as what the other specialties have, but also not tied down to a particular style.

You can change your affiliation at any point when you level up, so you can actually start your adventuring career in white robes and then if you find you're always using the explodey spells, your character can be "called to the red". This is the option given as the "starter build" for wizards.

With all of that settled, I'm strongly leaning towards brown as the color that foregoes any particular facility with combat spells in favor of additional utility with utility spells.

The description of the Wizard class will also note that traveling mages aren't actually required to dress head-to-toe in their color any more than there's a requirement to wear voluminous robes and pointy hats, though many at least use their chosen color as an accent. The colored robes and hats are more like the formal dress uniform than everyday clothing.
alexandraerin: (Default)
I talk a lot about what I think 4E missed or did that was boring, but I think it's worth highlighting the fact that they got a lot of things right and did a lot of things that were interesting, or else I wouldn't be inspired by the system.

One of the things that I thing they nailed was the specificity of character classes.

Sure, I grouse about the fact that they defined Rangers specifically as "highly mobile fighters who use either two weapons or a bow" and not "highly mobile fighters who specialize in rapid attacks", but that particular specification is one of the things that 4E was holding onto from previous editions of D&D. The PHB Ranger was cut loose from most of its ties to the wild, like druid magic and animal companions. I wouldn't have done that, though I can see the argument. It should have been cut loose from the bizarrely specific weapon specializations that tradition had saddled them with.

But I digress. The point is: the specificity of the classes is part of 4E's strength. I don't always feel this way. Sometimes I think it's weird the degree to which a class in 4E reads like a really specific character build, and builds read like a character. Like, the Barbarian class. There's a whole group of people--a whole culture, maybe--who have the power of getting so mad that they channel elemental energy and primal animal spirits? Warden... there's basically a profession in the world where you turn yourself into an anthropomorphic personification of a season or a tree or something in order to hold back enemies?

The Primal classes in general tend to read this way, maybe in part because 4E's take on primal magic doesn't quite fit the mold of D&D-style fantasy gaming the way "druid spells" in previous editions did. But even the classes in the PHB1 seem pretty specific. Cleric is not just "a priest of a god", it's a divinely-empowered servant who has these specific gifts, regardless of their deity, organization/order, or ethos. While the nature of the gifts broadens in later books, the selections you make still just tilt you in one direction or another (more heal less smite, less smite more heal) while leaving your character basically defined the same way as Clerics were initially.

When PHB 2 came out with Avenger and Invoker, my first reaction was to call them Other Paladin and Other Cleric. Because the Avenger has a sword and uses divine power and combat training to smite foes, and Invoker uses divine power for spell-like effects. My opinion is still that, in-world, most people wouldn't distinguish between any two holy warriors or any two robe-wearing miracle workers. They'd be holy warriors and priests, not Avengers, Paladins, Clerics, and Invokers.

And so when I started Adventure Song, I started from the standpoint that I would make generic classes that you could tailor to a desired roll. So there would be one Warrior class, which would stand for Fighter, (martial focused) Ranger, (martial focused) Barbarian, and Warlord, one Warrior of the Wild for Seeker, (primal focused) Ranger, (primal focused) Barbarian, one Holy Warrior for Avenger and Paladin and Hammer Clerics, and one Priest for Cleric and Invokers and implement-heavy Paladins.

The Warrior class was my test case, and it worked out pretty well, so then I started on the Priest.

It worked... less well. Trying to create a set of guided choices through the class features that would give you the pieces to end up with a D&D 4E Cleric or an Invoker or those characters turned towards other roles, it just ended up too complicated. Too many moving parts. Cleric is a more complex class than Invoker, but stripping out some of the options made it so that the Cleric build no longer felt like a D&D 4E Cleric.

And that was a problem, because that was my goal. To the extent that I'm trying to reinvent the wheel with this project, I still want it to be a wheel when I'm done with it.

I ended up going back and turning the Warrior back into Fighter, once I saw how the Cleric turned out. Oddly, it seemed to become more generic when I made it narrower in focus. While the Warrior class worked, having hooks in the system to hang all these disparate features on made it unwieldy, and weakened its usefulness as a starter class.

But the Cleric... I think early versions of D&D had something right there, in acknowledging the Cleric's roots. The first versions made it clear that the adventuring Cleric was a warrior priest inspired loosely by knights of militant church orders. Adding the Paladin alongside the Cleric obscures that a little, and I don't think the identity of "church militant" is important to the identity of the Cleric class (though I'm using it as flavor for the "Hammer Cleric" build), but the fact remains that the Cleric does not stand in for all clergy.

AD&D 2nd Edition talked about this when it listed Druid alongside Cleric as an example class for "priest of a different ethos", different here meaning "different than the assumed/implied ethos we built the Cleric class around".

So the Cleric class represents not any priest, but a specific type of priest of a specific type of god who holds to a specific type of ethos. The gods or force the Cleric serves is opposed to the undead (or the undead intrinsically find the force inimical) and to infernal creatures. The gods or force the Cleric serves, whether they're gods of life or what, empower the Cleric to heal and protect.

The rigidity of these assumptions inherently limits the number of character concepts that the Cleric can represent, but it makes the character concepts it does represent hang together better in the system. Every piece of the Cleric's character, every build option, can support or complement these assumptions to greater or lesser degrees.

In-world, the assumptions behind the Cleric class are supported by worldbuilding. The continent of Cadran is emerging from centuries ravaged by plague, strife, disorder, and the loss of previous ages' knowledge and learning. At the same time (possibly in response to the emergence, possibly helping to guide it), a number of gods have chosen to assert their presence in Cadran in a big way, intervening more directly in mortal affairs than any such being has done in centuries. These gods empower some of their servants with the ability to protect, inspire, and heal others through miraculous means, as a sign of the gods' very real presence and very real power. These servants are charged to go forth in the world and use their gods-given gifts. Ideally they would be using them in the service of their god or gods, but just the act of going forth and using them is a service: it helps spread the word.

(Note: Yes, this whole thing is very Christian-oriented. So is the source material. D&D was created by a Christian man, in a Christian-dominated culture. I think it's better to acknowledge and think about the Christian influence on D&D than try to forget or obscure it while inevitably still cleaving to it.)

Might there be other gods? Might there be other powers in the world? Might there be other gifts that gods (these new/returned ones, or others) can give? Yeah. The baseline Paladin class is going to represent another set of gifts the same gods give to other followers, who serve them in another way. And you could use either of those classes to represent the empowered servants of some other god or force outside the framework of the pantheon actively asserting themselves over Cadran... just as long as the assumptions made for the Cleric or Paladin broadly work for your ethos.

I did decide to make the enemy-of-the-undead thing a little more flexible. A lot of undead will have vulnerability to celestial damage and some attack invocations will have additional effects against undead, but the Cleric's Turn Undead class feature has been broadened, strengthened, and turned into a major power (character defining gimmick) called "Exorcist" that gives you bonuses against and the ability to repel, harm, and hold at bay undead and infernal-aligned characters. If you don't want a character whose effectiveness changes so much based on what enemies you're facing, you can replace Exorcist with a major power called Firebrand, which lets you harm, repel, and hold at bay any foe through divinely-powered charismatic exhortations. Obviously Firebrand is weaker in its effects, for not being target-limited. The fact that its damage type is celestial means it will still tend to be more effective against undead and infernals. The two powers also have different side utility benefits, with Exorcist allowing you to protect people or areas from undead/infernal incursions and Firebrand helping you to stir people to action.

Other loosely planned major powers you could take for a Cleric to break the mold more completely on the turn/rebuke/hold thing are Prophet (divination and prediction powers), Evangelist (Charisma bonuses and followers), and Faith Healer (dramatically improved healing abilities). Characters will be able to gain at least one and possibly two other major powers as their character levels, so you could start with the standard Cleric ability and grow into one of those things.

But regardless of what you do or don't do for your major power, your Cleric's still going to broadly fit a certain mold. You'll still be healing and protecting. You won't be just healing and protecting, because that's another thing that 4E got right: no one should be forced to dispense band-aids from above while everyone else gets to do their own thing. And I'm largely following the 4E model there: healing as a side action, attacks that have secondary effects that heal or protect.

When I get to the Invoker class, that's going to be a little more flexible and open-ended and open to interpretation than the Cleric. Because, as I said, the Invoker is a less complicated class. D&D 4E attaches a backstory to them, but their class features are few and simple and for the most part they amount to a divine wizard. I'm going to run with that, a running that benefits from the fact that any spell in the game can be made into a divine invocation.
alexandraerin: (Default) brain kept spinning around on that subject, and I think I've come up with a basic structure that I like not just for items, but for character progression.

I probably don't need to repeat the fact that I don't like the pointless progression of numbers. An untrained fighter at level 1 is rolling an 11 or higher to hit an unarmored/untrained target. If at level 21, the same fighter is trying to roll a 31 or higher with a +20 bonus to hit the same target, that's not character development, advancement, or progress... that's busywork so pointless that the worst math teacher in the world wouldn't assign it, and you're sitting around a table doing it for fun.

So, my progression is this. Starting at level 6, and at every multiple of 6 thereafter (assumed progression ending at 30, just like 4E), you get +1 as a Level Bonus. What does your Level Bonus apply to?

Well, it applies to any attack form that you have an attack skill bonus with. ASB fills the same role as "ability modifiers" to attacks in 4E... it's not tied to attributes, but it has a similar distribution at level 1 and is the basic "add this to your hit roll" thing.

So if you have +5 with close weapon attacks at level 1, then at level 6 you have +6. If you have +0 with them at level 1, then at level 6 you have +0.

It applies to *all* your defenses. Why all defenses and only some attacks? Because you can stick to what you're good at for attacks, but enemies will be coming after you on all fronts. Having a standard progression for defenses means that if you have Reflexes 2 and Willpower 0 at level 1, then at level 18 your Reflexes and Willpower have the same relationship to each other that they did back then. On an in-game level... you will have been attacked in a multitude of ways over the course of your career, and you're still standing.

For non-combat stuff, the rule is: add it to skills, not attributes. If you're making a Strength roll to lift a bale of hay, you use your Strength. If you have a skill bonus to lifting, then you roll Strength + skill + level bonus.

Why have an auto progression at all, given general my feelings on the subject?

Well, first, there's some stuff built into the magic item system that works "for every six full levels you have", so it's useful to have shorthand for that. Second... I want to have a greater ability than in 4E to fight foes above or below your level, and there should be a difference there. To jump to the extreme example, most of the difference between a level 1 character and a level 30 god-killing abomination should be in overall capabilities, not point spreads that make hits impossible or misses inevitable.

Originally this post was going to be about magic items, but it kind of got away from me and now I'm tired, so, I'm going to drop it off here and maybe pick it up again tomorrow.
alexandraerin: (Default)
There's a lot not to like about how 4E handles items. There are good ideas, like the idea that it should be less capricious, that they should be treated as part and parcel of a character's abilities, etc., and ideas like spontaneous enchantment of a player's personal signature item as an alternative to finding a magic sword in a treasure cache.

But on a systemic level? They made one critical mistake early on, and it marred the whole of the thing.

That mistake was working the "magical plusses" into the steady progression of character attack and defense bonuses by level.

You can understand why they did it. If they hadn't done this, then it would throw that progression off completely if everyone has +5 or +6 equipment at the epic levels, and if some people did and some people didn't, it would be worse.

So they made the steady acquisition of better pluses a de facto part of leveling up, and as a result it became both crucially important to have magical equipment but also pointless.

Really, the mistake is having a standard steady progression of hit bonuses and attack bonuses to begin with. If you don't, then a +2 or +3 sword at any level is a significant (though not overwhelming) advantage. If you do, then it's keeping up with the Joneses.

So what would I do instead?

First, keep "basic pluses" on the low end, like +1 to +3. Keep them in the "why not?" category rather than "must have". I might even throw them out completely and just make it so that enchanted gear gives +1 and then does more interesting things on top of that. Or split the difference and make the range +1 and +2, with +1 pretty common (for magic items) and +2 pretty rare.

Second, give more interesting leveled abilities than hit/damage/defense bonuses. A seeking bow +5 wouldn't add its +5 to hit rolls and damage rolls, for instance... instead, it would let you target an enemy you don't have a line of fire to if you could hit a square within 5 squares of them, and subtract 5 from the penalty you incur when a sighted character can't see their target. The two uses can be combined, so that if you have no clue where your target is, you can tell the GM you're firing at a given square and if the invisible target is within 5 squares of there, you'll hit. Pending a successful hit roll, I mean. It's not automatic.

This is something that totally makes sense for what the bow is/does, and it can be stacked alongside any amount of hit bonuses the game system supports without breaking it.

Third, make item powers more wont to be encounter than daily, and let players lean on them more. In 4E, in order to head off the possibility of players stockpiling multiple copies of lower-level but useful magical items with daily powers and then using those daily powers xty times per day, they added a limit of how many magical item daily powers you could activate per day, and it was basically 1 for every 10 experience levels.

This problem is compounded by how uninteresting and unworthy of being a daily power so many item daily powers were. A lot of them seemed like they would have been once-per-encounter utility powers, except then there would be *nothing* stopping you from stockpiling them and using them except a limit on how many item encounter powers you can use.

Well, Adventure Song already doesn't use a "use up individual power" system, so I think here's how item powers will work: they can be activated with either a Copper Token OR a Silver Token (encounter utility and encounter attack, respectively), PLUS characters over a certain level will start accumulating Mithril Tokens, which can be used in place of a normal token to activate item powers.

So using an item's special abilities takes the place of using your own, *but* you can get better at item use, *and* you can be very flexible about it.

And to be clear, this is not a cost just for using the item. Like the bow of seeking? All the things I described above would be ordinary use. Spending a token might let you do something like redirect an attack that misses, or move the arrow up to 24 squares as if it were a flying character under your control to find its target.

Heck, having said that, here's what it would do: turn the arrow into a flying animated object with a relatively high speed under your control, capable of carrying a small item like a scroll or potion or ring. You'd have line of sight through its "eyes", be able to attack enemies with it by moving through their square or delivering/picking up items from allies by moving through theirs. On a successful hit, you can immobilize (pin) the target but this ends the effect.

If you don't do this, then at the end of your next turn, the effect ends, though if the arrow is still live, you can direct it at one foe (or empty square, if it's a special delivery) in its line of sight and normal range.

Would that not be a magic item worth owning? It's not unbalancing, it's not something that you would be crucially disadvantaged by not having... but it would be cool and useful and fun. Not necessarily something that fits on a card, but while the cards 4E uses are useful, they're also limiting... and I think the decision to handle power exhaustion at the level of individual abilities is how they ended up there.


alexandraerin: (Default)

August 2017



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